Sunday, May 31, 2009

A family of Downy Woodpeckers out and about on the trail...(BPW #40)

What a sweet sight--about ten feet off the trail, a female Downy Woodpecker was foraging on a tree trunk when out of nowhere her sweetheart flew in with a bill full of caterpillars and gently fed them to her. At least that’s what I thought was going on at first... 

Then the male flew off quickly, and very efficiently nabbed another insect only to deliver it to another girlfriend? “How did she get all the way over here…” was the thought going through my mind as the male darted off in another direction and delivered food to yet another woodpecker. “Duh!” registered almost immediately…"these are babies and the male is the papa!" And did he ever work hard. I spent the next 30 minutes watching the male fly nonstop from baby to baby with bites to eat. I think there were four babies. That’s all I could keep track of because they were not sitting still on the trunks. They were also flying from tree to tree, so not only did the papa have to find the prey for his offspring, he then had to find his offspring to feed them. It was truly amazing to watch and listen to him and the babies.

Although not a great photo, it shows the frantic 
pace of the departing papa who was trying 
to keep up with his babies’ appetites!

As soon as i realized these were babies, it was so obvious. They were making soft baby sounds calling to their papa. They were also very gentle and hesitant as they probed the bark and pecked a little here and there into the tree trunks.

Baby learning how to forage and dig 
out insects in soft, decaying bark.

Baby Downy with a speckled breast. Just look 
at that baby Downy's cute!

…and Papa Downy wasn't the only father busy in the deep wood. Papa Red was working very hard to teach his two children (one of which who looked nothing at all like him but very much like a fluffy little Cowbird) learn to forage. Papa Cardinal kept the two babies low on the hill buried deep in the undergrowth, safely out of the camera lens’ reach!

I'm finally starting to get over this cold/sinus infection. The antibiotics I got on Friday are working and my energy is returning. I've been writing almost daily about the birds, and taking a few days off to rest seemed very weird. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Three Baby Red-tailed Hawks...and an Indigo Bunting on the Little Miami Bike Trail

After dinner I headed over to the trail to check on the eyas. Even though I wasn't feeling that great because of my cold, I had to see how the baby was doing. I'm glad I went, because when I reached the nest and looked up, I saw two little white fluffy heads looking down at me! 

The new eyas is on the left, not quite as white as the first baby. 

As I watched the two babies, the sun came out from behind a cloud and backlit them, highlighting their little fuzzy dandelion-top heads. And slowly, as if disturbed from sleep by the sun's bright rays, a third little white head rose up and two dark eyes blinked into my camera lens. 

...and the three babies just watched, and looked...and watched and looked, their eyes huge and their expressions wise. They were very calm, barely moving, seemingly trying to absorb everything they saw around them, and (I'm sure) hoping mama would show up soon with something yummy to eat!

Dark clouds were starting to move over the trail, and the light had stopped filtering through the trees. It was 6:07, which was still early, so the darkness was definitely not from nightfall. A slight drop in temp and the sound of wind moving through the leaves as it pushed down the trail, confirmed it. A storm was brewing. I decided to move on. A Wood Thrush and an Indigo Bunting had been singing at full throttle for a while, and it would be lovely to see them before I left... However, a few rumbles of thunder off in the distance convinced me it was time to go, but then I saw him. Even in the darkening gloom, the Indigo Bunting shone electric blue.  

He was pretty far off the trail, and with a shutter speed slowing down to compensate for the lack of light, I knew these photos would be blurry, but I was hoping to capture his beautiful blue. Another rumble...and a much sharper wind hurried me along. I almost made it. I caught up to a husband and wife team also trying to beat the storm...and we laughed as the rain poured down. Cyclists were pouring off the trail too...also laughing. At least the rain was warm. It felt really good! 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Red-tailed Hawk's Nest on the Little Miami Trail

About a month or so ago, two Red-tailed Hawks were making a huge ruckus high up in a Sycamore tree on the trail, calling and crying out incessantly. Usually I only see hawks soaring overhead as I catch glimpses of them through the branches, so this was new behavior and I wondered what was up. Trying to find an opening in the branches to see what these birds were doing took a little time, but suddenly I saw a flash of pale red, other movement, and then a huge nest! Wow! No wonder they were squawking. They were building a home. Since then, I checked the nest every time I walked past, but I never saw any activity, so I assumed the couple must have abandoned it for other digs. But this weekend when I looked up, I saw something, and when I zoomed in...there was a head buried deep among the sticks!

Mama Red-tail was silent, nonmoving, and perfectly camouflaged in her nest. If I hadn't used my binocs, I never would have noticed her (and I wondered if she or papa had been sitting up there, hidden, for the past month). I watched for a while to see if papa would show up, but he didn't, so I continued to walk on up the trail, hoping to see a Scarlet Tanager or a few Indigo Buntings at their normal hangout. No tanagers were about, but I did see an Indigo Bunting, and even better--as I walked past the nest on my way back, I looked up and saw a baby! I couldn't believe it. A fluffy, white, large-eyed cutie was looking over the edge of the nest, no doubt waiting for mama or papa to bring it some food.

This gives you an idea of just how huge this Sycamore 
tree is. It towers over the other trees. Check out the size of 
the branches holding the nest. They are larger than most 
trees' trunks! The nest is huge, and this is just one part of it. 

Little baby get back in that nest! 
Mama will be home soon with dinner.

...and let's zoom in once more. Look at those precious eyes--
huge and round...and far-seeing, a fluffly, soft, downy eyas 
sitting atop a pile of sticks. Watching, listening, waiting.

I hung around for a while hoping mama or papa would return with some food, but neither did. Eventually, the baby started sinking back down in the nest, so I left. About 10 minutes into the return trip, I decided to turn back to see if either of the parents had flown in with a meal, but neither had, and baby must have nodded off to sleep, because once again the nest looked empty. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next week!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Acadian Flycatcher on the Little Miami Bike Trail

I was about a quarter mile down the trail when this little Acadian Flycatcher caught my attention. His song burst through the trees, loud and short and familiar—practically demanding that I look for him! As I slowed and started focusing in the leaves of a tree just off the trail, he suddenly plopped down on a branch out in the open and started singing. A plain little bird that looks like so many others, there is no mistaking his song, especially when he tosses his head back to sing it.

When he sings he tosses his head high, and if you're standing
below, all you can see is that little yellow lower mandible.

In the summer, I hear Acadian Flycatchers all the time on the Little Miami Trail. The heavily wooded riverside path is their textbook-perfect breeding habitat. In this stretch of the trail, four small creeks tumble down the hillside and feed into the Little Miami River. Our little migrant was staking his claim very close to one of those feeders.

The sun was so intense on Saturday that as it filtered
through the green leaves it cast a green glow on the bird.

Acadian Flycatchers are fun little birds to watch because they often sit still for a few minutes, and that gives you ample time to study them (unlike those cute little warblers that seem to be here, there, and everywhere). Our fellow, in between singing and looking for bugs, liked to preen, and he was very good at it too, doing it a lot!

You can even see his lower yellow bill while he preens.
What a cutie!

No matter how tolerant a bird is to the clicking
of my camera shutter, every now and
then he still has to give me the eye!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pileated Woodpeckers on the Little Miami Bike Trail (BPW #39)

I hear Pileated Woodpeckers almost every time I go to the trail, but I don’t see them that often. They are just too shy; however, in the past 3 weeks I’ve seen a male and a female foraging together six or seven times…and at close distance! It’s like they’ve moved in and set up house or something, which is probably exactly what they’ve done. I doubt I’ll ever see their nesting cavity though, because there is no way the secretive birds would have excavated a cavity in one in the trees along the pavement (of course I can always hope...). I think they are anchored up the hillside because I hear them calling from that spot almost every time I go there.

One of my best Pileated Woodpecker memories happened earlier this spring at Spring Valley Nature Area. As I was walking down the path west of the lake, this monster bird came up from behind, sweeping overhead and directly down the corridor of trees in front of me. At 17 inches, he is a force to reckon with. Hearing the air under his wings and feeling the energy he left in his wake (being only four or five feet over my head) is a sensation I’ll never forget. Then watching him sail straight down the woodland path at about eye level was a spectacular sight.

To tell a male and female Pileated Woodpecker apart, just check 
out their mustaches. The male's is red and the female's black. 
The above photo shows the male's red mustache.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

For a baby heron, practice makes perfect...

The babies are getting closer to fledging. Lots of them are now exercising their wings, practicing and getting strong enough for that first flight. This baby flapped his wings over and over...then rested. His brothers and sisters weren't interested in exercising.

In another nest, this fellow took his inaugural flight. He raised up and flew about five feet to another branch. It was so funny. When he landed he sort of looked around like, "What just happened?" His brothers and sisters watched from the nest, but no one else dared to try the "wing thing!" 

In yet another nest, this little family of much younger chicks was content to just sit and watch, waiting for mama or papa to return to feed them lunch.

Friday, May 22, 2009

In our town, where there are Bobolinks, there usually are Meadowlarks…

…and the High Meadow at Voice of America (VOA) Park was no exception. After I had calmed down a bit over the beautiful music of the Bobolinks (click here for the Bobolink post), I started paying attention to the calls of the Eastern Meadowlarks. I waited for their pretty little song, but they were more intent on issuing that buzzy, harsh call instead. There were three males calling nonstop from different posts in the surrounding fields, sometimes staying very close to a female. This male was especially vocal and would fly between his post in the field and the top of a tree by the gravel road.

Beak Bit
Unlike Bobolinks who are long-distance migrants and make VOA their home only from April through October, Eastern Meadowlarks are short-distance migrants and can be found year-round at the park. But the birds you see perched amid falling snowflakes in the winter may not be the same birds braving the heat in the summer. Many of our wintering meadowlarks will migrate further north for the breeding season and will be replaced by more southern birds completing their short-distance migration.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A secret window through the green…

Walking along the familiar wooded corridor of the Little Miami Bike Trail, I paused for a second to look through the heaviest of green, listening. It’s always when I slow down that I see the most amazing little things. Secret things. Actions not made for us, but that we are compelled to watch and admire…and marvel at. Quietly.

These two young squirrels were eye level from where I was standing. They did not notice me (or at least the pretended they didn’t). Perhaps siblings, they were grooming each other, companions totally at ease.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bobolinks at Voice of America (VOA) Park

Sunday evening as I stepped out of my car, I heard a bubbly, melodic, and slightly techno-sounding twittering coming from the tall grasses all around me. Strangely enough, the sound was reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars, and although not particularly loud, it was commanding (almost magical) and made me stop and strain to hear every note rising through the meadow. Slowly memories of the call from my bird song CDs started surfacing in my mind and “Bobolink song!” burst forth in that flurry of recognition we all know and love.

I had seen Bobolinks at VOA before, even earlier this spring, but never within earshot…and never in the High Meadow. Tonight was my first trip to this area. I didn’t even know this part of the park existed until a Cincinnati birder (thanks, Mike!) filled me in on its location. After taking in all the green of the large meadow, I started scanning the horizon looking for the familiar profile of the bird, but I couldn’t find one. I would hear the call bubble up in front of me, then to the left…then to the right, and with each new repetition I would freeze and just listen, slowing down my mind…sinking into each note. Slowly I realized they were hidden in the deep green, watching me through the endless thin blades.

Finally, one flew out of the thick grasses and onto a small snag. This meadow truly was a sea of grass with only saplings sticking up here and there. Repeatedly, I would see a Meadowlark grab one…then a Bobolink…and every now and then a Red-winged Blackbird would sneak in too, but when it came to song the Bobolink had no competition.

After doing a bit of research at home, I found many others had been captivated by his song over the years too. Mary Deinlein, from “The Prairie Home Companion,” writes
Their song has been vividly described as "a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne," "a mad, reckless song-fantasia, and outbreak of pent-up, irrepressible glee," and as "a tinkle of fairy music, like the strains of an old Greek harp."
Click here for a link to this article on the Smithsonian National Zoological Park website. It is  packed with lots of Bobolink facts and tidbits.

Beak Bit
The Bobolink’s beautiful, delicate song masks his incredible strength and endurance. Of all the neotropical migrants, the Bobolink has one of the longest migration routes, requiring almost 6,000 miles of hazardous flight time to reach their summer breeding grounds! This fellow flies all the way from Argentina to the northern United States and Canada (in Cincinnati, we must be at the very bottom of their breeding grounds…lucky us!). Like many birds, Bobolinks use the stars, sun, and earth-bound landmarks to help guide them north, but Bobolinks also have a little extra help. They have small quantities of the magnetic mineral magnetite in the tissues of their nasal cavity. This mineral helps the birds feel the earth’s magnetic field, working like a compass pointed north! Experience also helps the bird wing its way north. Miyoko Chu (from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology) writes in a podcast on Birdnotes,  
“a nine-year-old Bobolink will have flown a distance equivalent to four and half times around the earth.”

Note: If you want to find Bobolinks, Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and even Henslow’s Sparrows in Cincinnati, head over to the High Meadow at VOA. The High Meadow is just past “Wiggly Field” (the special dog area) and marked with an Audubon’s “Important Bird Area” sign. Follow the one-lane gravel road that picks up after the dog park to find this amazing stretch of grassland—and be inspired by the songs of the prairie birds.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Great Crested Flycatcher at the Rookery

Today at lunch I headed over to the heronry to check on the babies, and although none had fledged, I was lucky enough to see a few practicing! Although intrigued with the herons’ behavior, when the knocking of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo broke through my concentration, I couldn’t resist ducking out of the cover of the windbreak to try to find him! He sounded like he was over by the edge of the woods near the creek and for a few moments I saw him. The spots on his tail feathers were a dead give-away as I watched him through a small break in the branches.  As I started to walk back to the windbreak, I saw a bird with a yellow belly sitting on a dead branch in the brush pile. Yowsers! A Great Crested Flycatcher! I had heard him sing earlier, but hadn’t recognized the song. Now I knew it. I’d never been able to photograph a Great Crested Flycatcher before, so my adrenalin was pumping and I almost couldn’t focus.

This photo shows the reddish tones in his flared tail.

I was too excited and moved a bit too fast trying to adjust the monopod (why was I even using this thing anyway!). He took off, but only flew a few feet away and dropped to the ground where he hunted through the grass clippings. In the past, I had only seen Great Crested Flycatchers higher up in the canopy of large trees. Why was this guy in the grass?

Maybe he was looking for suitable nesting material 
and the grass clippings looked promising...

Too soon, he flew to the copse of trees by the pond and landed on a dead branch. His mate, absent before, joined him briefly before flying higher in the tree. He soon followed to the top. I’d never been that close to a Great Crested Flycatcher before…and I liked it!

This guy was having a really good hair day because 
his crest almost always was nice and smooth.